Top 5 Famous National Guard Battles

We all know that the National Guard has served since the Revolutionary War until today’s current conflicts.  However, not many, including myself, are familiar with what historic battles our NG brothers and sisters have fought in.  Here are my Top 5 Famous National Guard Battles.

#5. Whiskey Rebellion: In September 1791 the western counties of Pennsylvania broke out in rebellion against a federal excise tax on the distillation of whiskey. After local and federal officials were attacked, President Washington and his advisors decided to send troops to pacify the region. It was further decided that militia troops, rather than regulars, would be sent. On August 7, 1794, under the provisions of the newly-enacted militia law, Secretary of War Henry Knox called upon the governors of Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania for 12,950 troops as a test of the President’s power to enforce the law.

Numerous problems, both political and logistical, had to be overcome and by October of 1794, the militiamen were on the march. The New Jersey units marched from Trenton to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. There they were reviewed by their Commander-in-Chief, President George Washington, accompanied by Secretary of the Treasury and Revolutionary war veteran Alexander Hamilton. By the time troops reached Pittsburgh, the rebellion had subsided, and western Pennsylvania was quickly pacified. This first use of the Militia Law of 1792 set a precedence for the use of the militia to “execute the laws of the union, (and) suppress insurrections”. New Jersey was the only state to immediately fulfill their levy of troops to the exact number required by the President.

#4. Fort Wagner, SC: The 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment was recruited in the spring of 1863 by Governor John Andrew, who had secured the reluctant permission of the War Department to create a regiment of African-American soldiers. Like all Massachusetts Civil War soldiers, the 54th’s men were enlisted in the Massachusetts Volunteer Militia. These Guardsmen would serve as a test case for many skeptical whites who believed that blacks could not be good soldiers.

The battle that proved they could was fought on Morris Island, at the mouth of Charleston Harbor. Following three days of skirmishes and forced marches with little rest, and 24 hours with no food, the regimental commander, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, requested the perilous honor of leading the attack on Fort Wagner, a sand and palmetto log bastion. As night fell, 600 men of the 54th advanced with bayonets fixed. Despite withering cannon and rifle fire, the men sustained their charge until they reached the top of the rampart. There, Colonel Shaw was mortally wounded.

There, also, Sergeant William Carney, who had earlier taken up the National Colors when the color sergeant had been shot, planted the flag and fought off numerous attempts by the Confederates to capture it. Without support, and faced with superior numbers and firepower, the 54th was forced to pull back. Despite two severe wounds, Sergeant Carney carried the colors to the rear. When praised for his bravery, he modestly replied, “I only did my duty; the old flag never touched the ground.” Carney was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions, the first African-American to receive the award. The 54th Massachusetts suffered 270 casualties in the failed assault, but the greater message was not lost: some 180,000 African-American soldiers followed in the footsteps of these gallant Guardsmen, and proved that African-American soldiers could, indeed, fight heroically if given the opportunity.

#3. Binarville, France WWI: Only four Army Air Service aviators received the Medal of Honor during World War I, half of them for one of the most famous episodes of that terrible conflict — the rescue of the famous “Lost Battalion.” Second Lieutenant Erwin R. Bleckley, a field artilleryman from the Kansas National Guard, was an aerial observer attached to the Air Service’s 50th Aero Squadron. Bleckley and other Guardsmen had volunteered as individuals for aviation duty during the war. He and other members of the 50th Aero Squadron had been assigned to locate and resupply the 1st Battalion, 308th Infantry, 77th Division.

That “Lost Battalion” had been completely cut off and pinned down in a deep ravine by German forces on October 3, 1918 while advancing in the Argonne Forest as part of General John J. Pershing’s Meuse-Argonne offensive with 600,000 troops of the American Expeditionary Force. Having failed to locate the “doughboys” on their first mission of the day, Bleckley, and his pilot, First Lieutenant Harold E. Goettler had volunteered for a second. Flying barely above the treetops and steep ravines, they drew intense enemy fire while making several passes over the area where they expected to find the American troops.

German machine gunners fired down at the flyers from the ridges above their fragile aircraft, as well as from below it. Badly wounded and with their De Havilland aircraft severely damaged, with at least 40 bullet holes in it, they made a forced landing near a French outpost. Goettler was dead when the French troops reached him. Bleckley died before the French could evacuate him to a medical aid station. However, his notes from the mission narrowed the search area where the trapped soldiers might be found. Each aviator received the Medal of Honor, posthumously, for his courage and sacrifice. Their mission underscored the critical importance of observation aviation to allied ground forces during World War I. Erwin Bleckley was the first of three National Guard aviators to receive the Medal of Honor during the twentieth century.

#2. Pantano, Italy WWII: In September 1943 the Allies invaded the southern Italian mainland at Salerno. Strategic planners had believed that the Germans would then withdraw north, toward the Alps. But the Germans did not withdraw, and in what became known as the Battle of the Winter Line, the Allies began their long fight up the Italian peninsula. Iowa’s 168th Infantry landed at Salerno some three weeks after the initial invasion. Part of the 34th Infantry Division (Red Bull) from Iowa, Minnesota, and South Dakota, and the first U.S. Army division to arrive in Europe, the 168th Infantry was already a veteran of the North African campaigns.

In Italy, the regiment went into action almost immediately, and on November 28, 1943, the 1st Battalion was directed to seize Mount Pantano, a large mountain whose four knobs gave it a square shape. Situated in a draw between the four knobs, was a full battalion of German defenders. Taking the first knob from the surprised Germans, Company A repulsed an almost immediate counter attack in hand-to-hand fighting. The rest of the battalion arrived and for the next five days the men were under constant attack. Company A’s commander, although wounded three times, led a bayonet charge against a German breakthrough; Company B stopped seven German assault waves; grenade duels raged all around the perimeter. When their ammunition was exhausted, the Americans hurled rocks and C-ration cans at the Germans.

Because pack mules could only travel one-third of the way up the steep and rain-soaked slopes, supply was a critical problem. For two days there was nothing to drink but rainwater. To evacuate a casualty meant four to six hours on foot down the steep trail, under mortar fire, which forced the battalion surgeon to treat casualties on the actual firing line. Despite the constant attacks, severe casualties, cold weather and lack of ammunition and food, the 1st Battalion, 168th Infantry held its position for five days until it was relieved. For its gallantry, the unit was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation. This was not the last Italian hillside the 168th and its sister regiments would take from the Germans: the 34th Infantry Division spent the rest of the war in Italy and is credited with more actual days in combat than any other U.S. Army division. Today, the heritage of the “Red Bull” Division is perpetuated by the 34th Brigade, 47th Infantry Division, Iowa Army National Guard.

#1. Indiana Rangers-South Vietnam: On May 13, 1968, 12,234 Army National Guardsmen in 20 units from 17 states were mobilized for service during the Vietnam War. Eight units deployed to Vietnam and over 7,000 Army Guardsmen served in the war zone. Company D (Ranger), 151st Infantry, Indiana Army National Guard arrived in Vietnam in December 1968. As part of the II Field Force, the Indiana Rangers were assigned reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering missions. Operating deep in enemy territory, Ranger patrols engaged enemy units while conducting raids, ambushes and surveillance missions. “Delta Company” achieved an impressive combat record during its tour in Vietnam; unit members were awarded 510 medals for valor and service. The gallant record of Company D, 151st Infantry symbolizes the Army National Guard’s performance in Vietnam.

Final Thoughts

This is what I believe to be the Top 5 National Guard Battles. What are your thoughts? Leave all comments and questions below. Thank you.

chuck holmes

Chuck Holmes
Former Army Major (resigned)

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6 thoughts on “Top 5 Famous National Guard Battles”

  1. This was a very interesting post; thank you Justin.

    The Fort Wagner, South Carolina one is of particular interest, in that I am now writing a book about another minority who has been highly involved in our armed forces. It isn’t just white Americans who have gave their lives and protected our freedoms. African Americans, Japanese Americans, Mexican Americans, and Puerto Ricans are just a few of the minorities who have fought gallantly for our country.

    We owe all of them the respect they deserve.

  2. Amy Skalicky

    Justin, I love military history, I learned something very important through your article. I did not realize that the National Guard had been a part of every conflict America has ever been engaged in. For some reason, I thought 9/11 was the start of that trend, when the Constitution actually provides for a state-controlled militia (today’ National Guard), but that Congress can, and always has been able to, call up the National Guard for national defense efforts, as demonstrated by their presence in all of the battles you highlighted above.

    1. Amy, it’s cool to think about, isn’t it? The ARNG has had a hand in all of these famous historical conflicts. It is impressive that we can all do our part, even if the military isn’t our full time job.

  3. I love looking at military history and thinking about the similarities between past and present. Thanks for posting the Top 5 National Guard Battles. It’s neat to investigate and find out more about the history of the National Guard. Also, here’s a badass image of the 54th at Fort Wagner.
    54th Massachusetts )

  4. Katelyn Hensel

    Thanks Justin! I love history particularly the bloody battles and such! You’ve obviously done your homework! I admit that I too have olnly heard of the “Lost Battalion” one before. I also seem to recall something about my family and the Whiskey Rebellion. Until the last generation, our entire family has lived in Pennsylvania since the 1700’s so it’s very possible that what I remember and your #5 example are one and the same! I’ll have to look into it.

  5. Thanks for educating all of us about the famous National Guard Battles, Justin. The only one on here that I was really knowlegable about was the WW1 Battle from the “Lost Battalion” movie. I’m going to research the other four and learn more about them.

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